World Views
2:01 pm
Fri August 29, 2014

OU Student Takes Message Of Global Understanding Before United Nations

On June 27, the winners of the “Many Languages, One World” contest sponsored by the United Nations presented their essays to the General Assembly. Out of almost 1,500 students worldwide who took part in the contest, 60 were chosen; including University of Oklahoma student Amanda Tomlinson.

The contest required an essay written in one of the six official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – any language except the native tongue of the author.

Tomlinson put her ideas about the importance of multilingualism as a path to global citizenship into writing and submitted them to the contest.

“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” Tomlinson says. “I found the competition and I thought, ‘I am woefully unqualified but I am going to try anyway.’”

The contest required her to write 2,000-word-essay, a weighty task for a student of Arabic who had never written anything over 600 words.

“It was a big jump, but it was a topic that I'm passionate about, multilingualism and global citizenship, and it was an unreal opportunity—the idea that I'd be able to speak at the General Assembly," Tomlinson says.

Scroll ahead to 13:55 to see Amanda Tomlinson deliver her speech

Tomlinson dreamed of speaking at the United Nations since she was a child. Growing up in Washington D.C., during the years following 9/11 instilled her with an urge to improve relations between different regions, particularly the United States and the Arab world.

“The United Nations, to me as a child, was a place where countries came together and resolved their differences or some—a body that stood for understanding and cultural tolerance,” Tomlinson says. “That really spoke to me after my experience of growing up in this environment where there was a lot of fear and angst surrounding the idea of the other and the foreign.”

Tomlinson believes the roots of conflict and animosity in the world all come back to a lack of mutual understanding. She hopes if people begin making the effort to speak more than one language it could lead to a better world.

“I think that multilingualism does lead you to understanding cultures and really seeing each other just as human beings and seeing each other as the same, rather than feeling separated by nationality or language or culture,” Tomlinson says, “When you speak to someone in their own language, you speak to their heart.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On why learning Arabic was important to her:

I just wanted to de-mystify the subject that when you don't speak Arabic and you look at something with Arabic script or you hear Arabic spoken it can sound sinister or harsh or just look extremely foreign to you but once you learn the language you realize that it's just language it's just commonplace everyday things it's just writing and I think that definitely had something to do with it. The environment I grew up in which definitely had more of an emphasis on sort of the clash of civilizations idea between the West and the Arab world I definitely was aware of that and that had to do with my decision to study Arabic.

On her fascination with the United Nations:

I was raised on a diet of NPR as a child so this is very near and dear to my heart and I listened to a lot of NPR and you hear a lot about global affairs and the United Nations and I suppose when I was young and just listening to it influenced me inevitably. But, for me growing up in Washington D.C., especially during that time in the early 2000s and in the wake of 9/11 there were certain feelings of panic and anger and terror that were present and they were very hard to comprehend as a child but, as I grew up you had this idea that something needed to be done about it and in large part the United Nations to me as a child was a place where countries came together and resolved their differences. A body that stood for understanding and cultural tolerance and things like that and that really spoke to me after my experience of growing up in this environment where there was a lot of fear and angst surrounding the idea of the other and the foreign.

On her ultimate career goals:

My ultimate goal is to be a physician and hopefully work in global health possibly in infectious disease and I think that my love of language will play into my role as a physician through you know the fact that ultimately it's all about communication and understanding between the physician and the person they're treating. And also I'm very interested in global health so I'm hoping that my language proficiency will be able to help me if I'm in a position where I'm working with people from other regions around the world or um to conduct research or that sort of thing.

The quote referenced by Tomlinson about language:

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." – Nelson Mandela

CNN- Mandela in His Own Words

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Amanda Tomlinson, welcome to World Views.

AMANDA TOMLINSON: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Well Amanda, you've done something quite incredible. Something many young college students don't get to do, and that is to speak at the United Nations. You did this over the summer. That was the result of your winning a contest, an essay contest. You actually wrote an essay in Arabic, in the Arabic language. You were the only American that was chosen of the ten, I believe, that were chosen in that language category to come and speak to the United Nations. I mean this is something pretty incredible. What was that like?

TOMLINSON: It was an absolutely incredible experience. I found the competition and I thought, "I'm woefully unqualified, but I'm going to try anyway." I started preparing my essay and I just kept writing and writing little piece by little piece. It was the longest thing I had ever written before. Prior to this, I had written maybe 600 words in Arabic in one sitting, and this essay was 2,000. So it was a big jump, but it was a topic that I'm passionate about - multilingualism and global citizenship. And it was an unreal opportunity - the idea that I'd be able to speak at the General Assembly.

GRILLOT: So tell us about this thing that you're really passionate about. Multilingualism and global citizenship. What did you say to them there at the United Nations?

TOMLINSON: Well, multilingualism and global citizenship it sounds kind of like just a combination of buzzwords at first. But it's something that's very important to me. The idea of multilingualism, and then through multilingualism you obtain global citizenship, or you strive to obtain global citizenship. For me, when I was younger, I studied German, and then once I got the opportunity to study Arabic at OU, I really got to see different perspectives on the world, and on many different issues, because I've found that when you learn a language, it's very difficult to maintain certain prejudices or ideas about other cultures, because you're really just communicating as people without this barrier of a language gap between you. So I think in that way, multilingualism really does lead you to understanding cultures and really seeing each other just as human beings, and seeing each other as the same, rather than feeling separated by nationality or language or culture.

GRILLOT: So it's not just about communication, necessarily, it's about something deeper than that. It's about understanding and breaking down those barriers, as you're suggesting. Not just being able to have a conversation or understand what's going on around you, but to really feel a connection to that foreign culture that you're experiencing?

TOMLINSON: Yes, I think so. Something my Arabic teacher said a lot last year is that when you speak to someone in their language, you speak to their heart. And I know that's a much more famous quotation, but I don't have the reference right now. But when you speak to someone in their own language you speak to their heart, where when you speak to them in their second, third or fourth language as the case may be, it doesn't have the same emotional connection.

GRILLOT: Well, you mentioned dreaming about speaking to the U.N. as a young child. This has been written about, your experience there, and you're quoted as saying that you always wanted to speak to the U.N. So, why? What is it about your experience - you're from Washington, D.C. originally, I believe - what is it that you experienced growing up, and what can other young people like you get involved in that would lead you down this path?

TOMLINSON: Well, for one thing I was raised on a diet of NPR as a child, so this is very near and dear to my heart, and I listened to a lot of NPR, and you hear a lot about global affairs, and the United Nations, and I suppose when I was young and just listening to it, it influenced me, inevitably. But for me, growing up in Washington, D.C. - especially during that time in the early 2000s and in the wake of 9/11 - there were certain feelings of panic and anger and terror that were present, and they were very hard to comprehend as a child. But as I grew up, you had this idea that something needed to be done about it, and in large part the United Nations to me as a child was a place where countries came together and resolved their differences. Or a body that stood for understanding and cultural tolerance and things like that. That really spoke to me after my experience of growing up in this environment where there was a lot of fear and angst surrounding the idea of "the other" and "the foreign."

GRILLOT: So how did this lead you to the Arabic language? You mentioned studying German, but ultimately you wrote an essay here in Arabic, and delivered your speech in Arabic. Is that connected, perhaps, to the 9/11 experience, that led you to really want to understand the Arabic-speaking world?

TOMLINSON: I think it definitely had something to do with it. I love languages, and I always knew I wanted to pursue languages on a higher level during my time at university. And I decided that I'd like to do a security language, as they call them, that I could go and study at a Flagship Program. And it came down to actually Korean and Arabic. And I think definitely the push that pushed me toward Arabic definitely did have something to do with the fact that I just wanted to demystify the subject. When you don't speak Arabic, and you look at something with Arabic script, or you hear Arabic spoken, it can sound sinister, or harsh, or just look extremely foreign to you. But once you learn the language, then you realize that it's just language. It's just commonplace, everyday things. It's just writing. I think that definitely had something to do with it. The environment I grew up in, which definitely had more of an emphasis on the clash of civilizations idea between the West and the Arab world. I definitely was aware of that, and that had to do with my decision to study Arabic.

GRILLOT: So studying Arabic to you made that part of the world, well, it emphasized the humanity of that part of the world for you.

TOMLINSON: Yes, and I thought that if somehow as an American citizen that I can understand another part of the world, if I can express myself to another part of the world, that I'll be able, in some way, to contribute to better relations between my own country and this other region. Because I really believe that at the root of hatred and animosity is misunderstanding, so if somehow I can attain this language proficiency at a superior level, and be able to express to other people and to receive information that somehow I would be able to help bridge the gap in some way and decrease the level of misunderstanding between cultures, just in some very small way.

GRILLOT: Well as if learning Arabic and having these amazing goals aren't enough, you're also studying chemical biosciences and have an interest in medicine. Is that right? How are you pairing these two things together? 

TOMLINSON: Well, my ultimate goal is to be a physician and hopefully work in global health. Possibly in infectious disease, and I think that my love of language will play into my role as a physician through the fact that ultimately it's all about communication and understanding between the physician and the person they're treating. And also I'm very interested in global health, so I'm hoping that my language proficiency will be able to help me if I'm in a position where I'm working with people from other regions around the world or to conduct research or that sort of thing. 

GRILLOT: Well Amanda, what you've done is quite remarkable and I can tell you we're very proud of you here at the University of Oklahoma and we wish you well in your studies here for the rest of the semester. 

TOMLINSON: Thank you for having me.

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